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The 3 could be key to move past round No. 3

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Doron Lamb is shooting 45.7 percent from 3-point range this season. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Doron Lamb is shooting 45.7 percent from 3-point range this season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE - Kentucky has had so few weaknesses this season that's become a weekly routine to dissect, break down and attempt to uncover a potential chink in the armor.

It's been like playing a game a pin the tail on the donkey, if you will.

But for all the overhyped, overplayed and beaten-down story lines about Kentucky's potential pitfalls, Western Kentucky head coach Ron Harper wondered out loud Thursday night if the criticism of the Cats' 3-point shooting had merit and said it could prevent them a run at their eighth national title.

"If they want to advance and win a national championship, they're going to have to shoot it better from the perimeter," Harper said. "They're going to have to find somebody else that can make a shot from the perimeter."

Kentucky hit just three 3-point shots in its 81-66 victory over Western Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and outside of Doron Lamb, the Cats were 1 for 6 from behind the arc.

As UK prepares to play eighth-seeded Iowa State on Saturday in the third round, it's once again raised concerns about Kentucky's ability to knock down the perimeter shot with consistency. Since hitting a season-high 15 3-pointers against Georgia, Kentucky has made just 20-of-75 3-point attempts since postseason play began. That registers at 26.7 percent over the last four games.

Is it a cause for concern or rather a recent outlier in what has otherwise been a pretty good shooting season?

"We can hit 3s," freshman point guard Marquis Teague said. "We've had games where we've hit 15 3s. We've got Darius Miller. He's a 40-percent shooter from the 3 (actually 36.8). Doron, he's a 40-percent shooter (actually 45.8). And we've got Kyle (Wiltjer), who can knock down shots, too. We don't get as much credit from the 3-point line as people think. We can shoot better than people think."

The Cats have actually been one of the better teams in the Southeastern Conference and in the country at making 3-point field goals. For all the credit Florida and Vanderbilt received this season within the league for making treys, UK ranks just behind them at 37.0 percent, which also ranks 57th in the country.

So why again do people feel like Kentucky's 3-point shooting is a weakness?

"I feel like it's something they hope happens," Teague said. "They're hoping we don't hit 3s so we lose."

The difference between Kentucky and those other teams that can shoot the 3 is UK doesn't take nearly as many shots from the perimeter as them, attempting 238 fewer 3-point shots than Vandy and 306 less than Florida. That's created a perception that the Cats can't hit the outside shot, which they say just isn't true.

"Shooting is important, but we don't want to rely too heavily on it," said freshman Kyle Wiltjer, who has made 19-of-39 3-point shots since SEC play began in early January.

During Kentucky's five-minute, 3-point shooting drill in practice Friday at the KFC Yum! Center - a drill in which Wiltjer hit 76 3-pointers in a few days ago - Lamb said all of the Cats hit 50 or more treys, which John Calipari considers to be a pretty good mark.

"I think we're going to make a lot of shots from the 3-point tomorrow," Lamb said.

If the Cats do, it shouldn't come as a total surprise. Twelve times this season they've hit seven or more 3-pointers.

The Cyclones have sounded like they are going to take their chances with Kentucky from the perimeter. Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg has talked about slowing the game down because of UK's ability to score inside, and ISU guard Scott Christopherson noted UK's athleticism and skill in the paint.

"You really don't want to let them beat you at the basket," Christopherson said. "You prefer to try to let them take contested jump shots on the perimeter."

Even if the Cats don't live and die by the 3 Saturday evening, their fate could be determined by it one way or another. For all the talk about Iowa State "point forward" Royce White, the Cyclones' offense functions largely from the 3-point line.

Iowa State has hit 290 treys this season, hitting 38.0 percent of its attempts, 35th in the nation. Four Cyclones have hit 50 or more 3s, led by Chris Allen's 75 3-point field goals.

In the surprisingly comfortable win over Connecticut, Iowa State hit six from long range, and twice this season the Cyclones have hit 15 or more treys.

"We can't let them be comfortable or they're definitely going to knock down shots," senior guard Darius Miller said. "Their one through four can knock down shots. They do a great job of getting open looks and executing what they need to do. We got to come out and try to take that away from them. We feel like if we take something away from them, it will give us a better chance of winning the game."

Because the Cats have played Florida and Vanderbilt so often this season - six times total - they feel confident in their ability to limit another perimeter shooting team and force them into their shot blockers inside.

In UK's six matchups with the Gators and Commodores, Kentucky held the teams to a combined 44 of 128 from behind the 3-point line.

"They shoot it just like them from outside, really well," Teague said. "We did a good job on those teams so I feel like we'll do the same thing with them."

The key, the Cats say, are high hands and long rebounds.

"Most team we play try to beat us from the 3 since we have Anthony (Davis) and Terrence (Jones) back there blocking shots," Teague said. "I feel like we've done a great job because not many teams have beat us this year. We just pressure them and try to send them into their bigs and then they'll take care of the rest."

While Iowa State doesn't pose the sexy matchup that a Final Four rematch with Connecticut would have presented, Calipari and the Cats are well aware Iowa State is a worthy team. The Cyclones have already beaten Kansas and Baylor this year.

"Folks, we have our hands full," Coach Cal said. "I can go on and on if you want, but we've got our hands full. This is going to be one of the toughest games we've played in a while."

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